Monday, November 9, 2015

Adjusting for Poverty

In a recent NYT article, Eduardo Porter outlines the Economic Policy Institute's report whose findings conclude that once U.S. students' PISA scores are adjusted for social status, we're actually doing significantly better than we thought we were.
"Then the researchers divided students into groups depending on the number of books in their homes, a measure of the academic resources at families’ disposal. This adjustment significantly reduced the American deficit, especially among students on the bottom rungs of the resource ladder. 
American students from families with the least educational resources, as it turned out, scored better on the PISA math test than similar children in France and about the same as Britons, Germans and Irish."
Credit: PhotoPin, licensed under CC by 2.0
These "adjusted" results shouldn't be too surprising for educators entrenched in these realities. We know if we adjust anything for socioeconomic status, we see gains. The issue isn't, "we're doing better once we adjust for poverty." The real issue to me is: we have a lot of poverty for a developed country, and we continue to unfairly burden schools with the responsibility of eradicating it. As if poverty starts and ends with schools. 

My experience in education has been grounded in teaching over-age, under-credited youth in alternative high schools in NYC. Translation: I've only taught adolescents coming from the "the bottom rung of society," as Mr. Porter puts it. Sure, I believe many of my former students are in a better place compared to their peers in similar situations globally (in developed nations, of course). My former students have access to certain privileges, rights, and safety nets. Yet beyond simply "showing up" to school, there aren't any supports available to "propel" students out of poverty, as is assumed what school is "supposed" to do. We often fail to acknowledge an underlying assumption in this dialogue: if students come to school, they will succeed. 

There are certain character traits that need to be developed in children in order for them to succeed in school. Resilience, grit, optimism, learning for pleasure, among others. These may seem obvious, but my teaching experience proved it's these very skills my students lacked, and their absence ultimately led to them dropping out, getting arrested, or worse, getting killed. For some reason, there's a narrative out there that claims students who live in poverty will automatically seek to excel in school once they're given the opportunity to learn. Anybody who has ever taught in an underprivileged school for more than two years (that's important) will tell you otherwise. 

Credit: FindMemes
Unfortunately, when we talk about schools "equalizing opportunity," we ignore the bigger issues, starting from the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Most of my at-risk students never quite made it past the second level. And let me tell you bloggers, economists, ed-pundits, and pontificators something: it's really difficult teaching a child anything when s/he doesn't know (a) where they're spending the night (b) who (if anyone) will be home for them and/or (c) if they'll be any food on the table once they get there. I don't care how "inclusive" your school setting is, or how great your classroom culture is, if a kid is hungry, tired, sleep deprived, and/or abused, it's going to be a very complicated situation.

This elephant in the room creates an uncomfortable divide. To the credit of teachers, I bet most of them are likely able to empathize with these students. However, they're experiencing a professional conflict. Do they hold this child accountable to "high expectations" or do they let the kid slide due to the extenuating circumstances? 
"Hey Stephanie, I can see you falling asleep at your desk. I know you have a housing situation going on (whispered)... but I need you to focus okay? Graphing quadratic functions is going to be on this week's assessment and the state exam." Awful.
In my last three years as an educator, I taught at a charter school for at-risk students in the South Bronx. Sexual education was never offered at this school, which is shocking because these are the students who should be engaged in these conversations. To clarify, "health" class was offered and is mandated for all students in NYC, but alternative schools (where resources are often prioritized to core content areas) rarely ever invest in these courses, nor are educators encouraged to engage in the "real" dialogues so necessary for this student population. 

Here are three essential questions I have heard former students ask each other, but have never heard them discussed in class:
  • "Is it right to have a child this young if I can't even take care of myself?"
  • "My friend has two kids, and she loves taking care of them, is it that easy?"
  • "My dad never stuck around, do you think I could do better?" 
It's no surprise I have so many former students with children, and it's also no surprise they themselves were born to parents who were also in their teens. Why are our most neediest students not receiving real sexual education? Or, why are they able to take sex-ed online where they can simply click through lessons and worksheets and achieve a passing score after only a few hours on a computer? I can't imagine a school that lets kids take Common Core Algebra 1 online, but mandates sex-ed in-person. Sure, it's not in our place to tell people what to do, but we can at least educate them with facts and hope they make the right decision (which is obviously: you shouldn't have a kid at fifteen: your family is on food stamps, you have two younger siblings, and the zip code you were raised indicates you're going to struggle as is). 

Schools that cater to at-risk, poverty-stricken kids don't have time to teach the stuff that's high impact and hits close-to-home. Topics such as sexual education, black disenfranchisement, gang involvement, and personal wealth management are often left out of the curriculum at schools with a low socioeconomic target population because they have to double-down on increasing their student achievement data (i.e. test scores). In NYC, if your school population is on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, you are still assessed in the same way other schools are, which creates conflict and incentives to cheat by administrators, teachers, and students. If you don't think any of this is true, schedule a visit to any of these transfer schools. Then, talk to those teachers off school grounds after dismissal and prepare yourself for brutal honesty.

My conclusion is not that test scores would go up and poverty would be eradicated if schools taught poor children sex-ed and wealth management. Rather, essential skills, knowledge, and personal growth are being sacrificed because schools are being asked to simultaneously boost test scores and eradicate poverty. And because of that, poverty-stricken children all over this country are growing up to hate learning. 
In the NYT, Mr. Porter asks, "Is it reasonable to ask public schools to fix societal problems that start holding disadvantaged children back before they are conceived?" Sir, our country started asking public schools to fix these problems a long time ago via "no-excuses" charter schools. In NYC, these charter schools are often too short-staffed to offer electives beyond the core curriculum, stifling students' creativity. Teacher retention rates in these settings are ridiculously low, and their school disciplinary policies are far too rigid. Finally, if at the end of the day your child poses too much of a "problem" at these no-excuses institutions, he/she is likely already on a list and will soon be booted off to a regular public school (perpetuating the problem). Overall test scores up, resource-sucking problem kids down. 

It doesn't look like our country is ready to ease this pressure off schools, so if we're going to task schools with building social welfare, we should focus on holistic strategies that bring back schools as our "local, community democratic centers." We should consider investing in ways to incentivize parents and guardians into the school building, not just to come for parent-teacher conferences. Parents should see their child's school building as their place of learning too, where they can enroll in skills-based training programs, volunteering programs, mentorship programs, etc. We shouldn't just extend the school day for kids who need remediation, parents should be incentivized to come and learn too (keyword: incentivize, not mandate). Twenty years ago, it was cheaper to buy produce from places we'd never heard of. Today it's still cheaper, yet more and more of us are opting to pay more to purchase local. Investing in the fortification and expansion of our local public schools as democratic, community centers of learning might be expensive, but could be healthier for us in the long-run. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Kindergarten Cops

When I was in kindergarten, I absolutely loved when my teacher provided me with a clear, descriptive rubric aligned to Common Core Learning Standards with every assignment. If you think I'm joking, it's because I am. CCLS didn't exist when I was in Kindergarten. I remember playing with Legos, building toy railroad circuits, drawing and pretending to be Superman, and of course, crying for my mother. And I'm pretty sure my Kindergarten teacher wasn't using a rubric to assess the rigor of my sobbing.

"There is no bathroom!"
Recently, an article from the Atlantic has been making its rounds with educators on social media. In short, the article juxtaposes America's strict, academic "reform" approach with Finland's "let kids play and figure it out" approach to kindergarten. It's an insightful case study of two well-intentioned, yet very different schools of thought in public education. 

Any time a concerned American suggests we take lessons on education policy from Scandinavian countries, they're often blitzed with negativity. "It's a small, homogenous country." "They've never had to deal with our kind of immigration." "That's nice, but they're all white." Some of these criticisms may be valid, but they're not solutions-oriented. They're just statements that make excuses for our own lack of excellence in schools.

Obviously, we're not Finland. But, we can still learn and adopt some of its best practices for our own needs. Or are we just too damn proud? In this standard Finland vs. America argument on education, we tend to ignore Finland's neighbor, Norway. Finland is nearly as populous as Norway (and nearly the same square mileage). Both countries have a comparable labor force and both countries have similar immigration levels. However, Norway tends to score closer to the U.S. on the PISA, which is significantly lower than Finland. Norway's teachers don't need a masters degree, and yet there's a national teacher shortage prompting ad campaigns to attract young professionals to teaching - sound familiar? Back in the early 2000s, Norway instituted a national system of standardized testing (called the NKVS). Again, sound familiar?

I don't know about you (yes, you), but things haven't really changed for me: I like to play. As a child, I loved to play. If I learned from playing, then that's just awesomesauce. As a teacher, some of my most memorable "teacher moments" occurred when I purposefully built for play in my classroom. Yet, it was significantly hard to create the conditions necessary for play teaching high school mathematics. There was a constant nag in my head reminding me my students just had to pass the New York State Algebra 1 Regents exam. Otherwise, we'd both be judged as failures.

Holy rigor, Batman!
Working in education technology today, I'm even more passionate about play in school, but that's also because I'm further removed from the classroom and the daily struggle to balance rigor, engagement, and fun. The thing is, we have to draw a line somewhere. I can't imagine how much more anxiety I would have if play did not exist when I was in kindergarten. I can't imagine how much more grade-driven I would be if my teachers used CCLS-aligned rubrics while I ran around making fart sounds and holding spaceships I made from Legos. Play time at home wasn't exactly reliable because I grew up in a broken home, so I had to make the most out of any fun I could get.

There is no evidence to support that children cannot learn from play or learn and play simultaneously. A former student of mine used to tell me about how he already knew so much about the Crusades because of Assassin's Creed. Sure, it's a video game, so there are inaccuracies. In the classroom, those are called "teachable moments" (take note, those of you who have never taught). These "teachable moments" are opportunities to foster authentic discussion. It's possible to have both. But I'm getting ahead of myself. What I'm really trying to say is children need and benefit from play. We know this. If we're going to insert literacy skills into kindergarten, it should be a data-driven decision, as in it's backed by strong evidence. However, the data seems to support Finland's approach. Why are we so stubborn with this? Let's stop underestimating children. Bring back the crayons, the Lincoln Logs, and the Play-Doh please. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Hipster Ice Cream

"Yo Mista... why this place really called the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop? Do they really mean gay?"

This place does well with immature teenagers
I recently took two of some of my closest students out for ice cream to tell them I wasn't coming back to teach this school year. I've known David and Ken for three years now. I've written about Ken before; I think of him as my second younger brother. These young men are slated to graduate this upcoming winter, but more importantly, I have witnessed them grow up right before my eyes. Both of them are turning 19 soon, so we're at a weird place where we can't figure out if I'm their teacher, an older sibling, a friend, or some kind of hybrid. These are often the best relationships I forge teaching high school because they're built upon real connections and blurred lines. I know we'll stay in touch long after they graduate.

I had mixed feelings as I walked out of the subway to meet them. I was really excited to see them again, but I knew telling them I wasn't coming back would be tough. Both David and Ken have their math credits, so they wouldn't have had me this year anyway. That's me trying to rationalize the situation. The reality is, when you teach at-risk students and develop a mentorship, you just know you need to be around physically whether or not they're even on your roster. David and Ken are best friends, but unfortunately, they don't have many adults in their lives to guide them positively. These guys ask me all kinds of things via text, from questions about a job posting to fashion advice. No joke, last week Ken texted me a picture of a bearded hipster wearing flannel and an oversized knit cap asking, "Hey Mista, know where I could get one of these hats?"

Hey kids, want to learn math and look good while you do it?
I met the David and Ken at a Starbucks near a subway entranced and we proceeded to walk a few more blocks east to the ice cream shop. David looked tired and for good reason: him and his girlfriend had recently welcomed a baby boy in their lives. He looked like he hadn't been sleeping well. Ken looked about as fidgety as ever, using every hand gesture known to man to explain how many hours he spent playing and conquering some new video game that just came out. Man, I sound old as hell saying that, don't I? Anyway, these guys were doing well and hadn't changed a bit, which made me very happy.

After the kids got over the shock effect of the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop's name, we ordered our desserts and walked to a nearby park. After more small talk, I finally mustered up the courage to tell them I wasn't coming back to teach. David seemed to take it well and asked probing questions. "So, like what will you do? How did you even find it?" He can be very practical when he's not trying to be the class clown.

Ken, who has already gone through so much, fell silent. "I knew you wasn't coming back. I knew it. Nobody wanna buy me stuff unless it's doing good in school, or if it's bad they wanna say." Ken is not only very observant, he's also incredibly experienced with loss. He has experienced more trauma than most people I know will ever experience in the course of their lives. He turned to David, "I told you it was going to be bad. I told you!" This kid limited this own excitement for free ice cream based on prior experiences being taken out to eat. Damn.

We spent a good hour afterwards just talking and catching up. There were periods of insane, teenage laughter followed by short, awkward moments of silence. One thing was clear: no matter how many poop jokes were made, Ken's feelings were hurt. Three years ago, Ken was a very angry young boy who couldn't keep his trauma from seeping out of his skin during the school day. Now he was calm and somewhat himself. It made me feel so happy to see how much more resilience he'd developed in three years.

I promised David and Ken I would stay in touch and be responsive via text, Facebook messenger, or whatever else the kids end up using this year. Since meeting them weeks ago, I've gotten messages from them already. David asked me to help him sign up as a tasker on TaskRabbit, and Ken sent me more pictures of clothes followed up with questions on where to purchase them. "Ken, you're going to look like one of those hipsters that try to look like they haven't showered."

"Would you rather I look like a thug? ;-)"

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Every Day Should be Data Day

There’s not a single day in the school year that’s capable of both boosting teachers’ morale or crushing them entirely more than data day.

Use the data. All the data.
Before I continue, I must first disclose I’m not against the “idea” of data day. Nor am I against measuring class data to inform and guide instruction. Quite the contrary actually — when I was in the classroom, I triangulated data from a variety of sources (including my own “teacher hunches”) and then made informed instructional decisions.

Of course, I came from the investment banking world, so making overly complex spreadsheets (on top of the mandated school gradebook) wasn’t a big issue. However, this isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a norm for teachers. Although this practice proved somewhat useful, it was incredibly time-consuming and difficult to maintain. As I gained more teaching experience, I learned when to overkill with data and when to go with my gut. Using data can be a hardship, but it can also be a game changer when used appropriately, efficiently, and in a timely manner.

My distrust for data day comes from how its typically implemented in practice. Teachers are in essence promised a full day to churn useful, yet otherwise hard-to-compile information into their daily work. But by the time data day actually happens, one or all of the following occur:
(a) Teachers get bogged down with so much lesson planning and grading the new "data" becomes overkill.
(b) Teachers grow frustrated with the plethora of unorganized data "handed off" to them from a printer.
(c) Some teachers use data to develop a plan of attack, while others grow weary and lost. School leadership fails to pair these groups up.  
In my experience, data day became a dumping ground to do things we should be doing more often. Kind of like receiving a giant gift basket on Teacher Appreciation Day, when all you really had to do was say “thank you” periodically.

It's nice to be thanked today, but come on, you could make a slightly better effort and notice me a bit more, yeah?

I think schools need to completely redefine what “data day” means. In general, it’s offered twice a school year, once in the middle and once at the end. There are schools that offer it more frequently, but it still remains up to school leaders to determine how effective this day is. Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous to expect every teacher to effectively use one day for something that should be happening weekly. Some schools are reducing the number of professional development days as a solution and that’s not helpful. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice professional development in the name of personalized instruction — they go hand-in-hand.

Data day should be every day (and maybe school-wide, it should be weekly) for teachers. While that’s unrealistic now given there isn’t enough time in the school day or week, it must be done. There’s a big demand for personalized learning and that doesn’t happen without teachers effectively using data to adjust their practices in real-time, all the time. We’ve got to figure out a way to balance professional development and data analysis with instructional delivery. Master teachers are able to engineer learning experiences that put students in the driver’s seat of their own learning. You don’t get that kind of magic without content expertise and student data analysis.

Unfortunately, master teachers are rare gems who often sacrifice a lot of their “me” time for the job. If we want sustainability, schools should think about developing staff-wide practices that build off what master teachers do, rather than simply glorifying how hard they work to “go the extra mile.”

Monday, August 24, 2015

Why I Quit Teaching

I've decided to quit teaching.

After six grueling years teaching high school math to New York City's most at-risk students, I've become jaded. And no, it's not because of the kids. They were the most compelling reason against leaving. It's just everything else.

When I first started teaching, I walked into the classroom absolutely on fire about everything. I was twenty-four years old and cocky: coming off a high from people telling me how impressed they were that I'd decided to forego a career in investment banking to pursue teaching. Like any first-year teacher, my life revolved around my profession: plan, create, assess, grade, adjust, repeat. I was an animal and it certainly didn't hurt that I was coming from an industry where people averaged working over ninety hours a week.

For the next few years, I grew very comfortable being "Yo Mista" in the classroom. I'd had my share of run-ins with district/school politics and bureaucracy, but I still felt untouchable. I realized a lot of the "sweat the small stuff" bullshit floating around mainstream education was just that: bullshit. I enjoyed teaching the most when I was speaking off the cuff. Instances where my students got off-task provided excellent opportunities to teach in the moment and connect. Scripted dialogues were for actors and I certainly didn't sign up to pretend.

After my third year, I decided to investigate what teaching at a charter school serving the same student demographic would be like. Despite my own personal reservations working at a charter school, it was a unique opportunity to be a founding teacher and work closely with the founding principal to set up school culture. The mission of the school was herculean: serve only high school students involved in the criminal justice system, child protective services, and transitional housing. It was rough. The days were long, the results less tangible, and the charter network less grounded in the realities of poverty. Still, a few of us persevered with some student successes. But it wasn't enough to just teach well anymore.

Teachers don't just teach. We make phone calls home. If someone doesn't pick up, we call again. We connect with social workers during lunch to investigate student concerns. We enter detailed anecdotal notes about our students in classroom management systems. We write and adapt curricula to meet our own classroom's needs. We grade. A lot. Then we synthesize all of the individual student achievement data to figure out where to move the class next. We research educational technologies most optimal for our students. Even the most tech-challenged teachers make genuine attempts to learn and incorporate technology in the classroom. We do a lot, because of our own passion for teaching or because of a fire lit under our asses by the nurturing of a good instructional coach.

It's what is imposed upon teachers by those outside the profession that irks me.

Often, district and school-wide administrators sign us up for software, technology, and classroom management systems that we never asked for or needed. Sometimes, they do this without even trying the technology themselves. Other times, they adopt systems and technologies that don't jive well with the mission or culture of the school, classroom, or teacher. I have a lot of frustrations with the education system in the United States of America, but this example of the complete and utter disrespect for my profession and expertise has finally gotten to me.

I've quit teaching (for now), but I'm not quitting teachers. In fact, as of today, I now work for a young educational technology company whose mission is to empower individual teachers. I've been informally consulting them for over two years now and I've decided it's time to fully commit. I'll be working directly with the CEO to help shape the application's design and features. I want to connect teachers to other teachers who use the application to create a community of shared resources. I want teachers to promote the application with other teachers if they think it's useful. I don't want to sell in bulk to districts and networks without teacher advocacy and support for the product. I get that teachers are resistant to being told they have to use something.

If you think I'm selling out, maybe you're right. Maybe not. But I'm not quitting teaching forever. I took this job with a goal in mind: help create something incredible for educators to compel me to come back into the classroom on my own terms.  Of course, now that I'm out, I won't be "Yo Mista" to my co-workers. I'm reviving the blog to stay grounded in my experience, but no one at work is going to call me that. And I'm honestly going to miss it.

So with that, my name is Abbas Manjee, and I hope to hear and work with you at Kiddom very soon.